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The end of Prohibition

Summary:
America went dry on January 17th, 1920, as the Eighteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, inaugurating Prohibition. Just under 14 years later, on December 5th, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was added to the Constitution, repealing the Eighteenth and ending the era of Prohibition.Prohibition was a disaster, in that it was an attempt to force the views of some, led by pious protestants and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, upon the whole of America. The Anti-Saloon League was opposed by many Catholics and German Lutherans, but German Americans had lost prestige during the First World War, and were unable to prevent the victory of the “drys.”Criminal gangs were prepared to supply illicitly what the government had made illegal, and soon dominated the illegal supply of beer

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America went dry on January 17th, 1920, as the Eighteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, inaugurating Prohibition. Just under 14 years later, on December 5th, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was added to the Constitution, repealing the Eighteenth and ending the era of Prohibition.

Prohibition was a disaster, in that it was an attempt to force the views of some, led by pious protestants and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, upon the whole of America. The Anti-Saloon League was opposed by many Catholics and German Lutherans, but German Americans had lost prestige during the First World War, and were unable to prevent the victory of the “drys.”

Criminal gangs were prepared to supply illicitly what the government had made illegal, and soon dominated the illegal supply of beer and spirits in most US cities. Booze was smuggled across borders and made domestically. A week after prohibition came in, small portable stills went on sale throughout America. Crates of liquor were smuggled in from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Doctors lobbied to be allowed to prescribe alcohol for “medicinal” purposes, and between 1921 and 1930, they earned roughly $40 million from whiskey prescriptions. BY 1926 the number of illegal “speakeasy” drinking establishments was put at between 30,000 to 100,000 in New York City alone. Cheap bathtub hooch had its raw quality concealed by a fashionable taste for cocktails, and just as government poisoned industrial alcohol to prevent its use for drinking, so gangs employed chemists to reverse the process and make it harmless.

Britain’s visiting Prince of Wales came back from Canada reporting a song he’d learned there:

Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,

Went across the border to get a drink of rye.

When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,

"God bless America, but God save the King!"

Prohibition made a mockery of the law and set ordinary Americans against the police and the law. Gangsters made huge sums from bootlegging, and bought judges and entire police departments. Al Capone was cheered at baseball games as a hero who gave people what they wanted. Gang slaughter came in as rivals killed each other in territorial fights for the vast profits to be had. The rattle of the tommy-gun vied with the Charleston as the sound of the 20s.

Those opposed to the ban began to gather strength on the back of a crime wave of gang murders. They pointed out that gangsters were pocketing revenues that could have helped communities. They said that conservative rural America was imposing its values on an unwilling urban population that saw things differently.

Prohibition was repealed when America needed revenues in the wake of the Great Depression, and when America needed some comfort from its woes. Looking back, it seemed like a self-inflicted nightmare. The prohibition of recreational narcotics has produced its own subculture of criminal gangs, and of large-scale turf war murders. Like booze, the ban faces a significant section of the population prepared to trade the risks for the pleasures. As state after state and country after country moves to legalize, it looks very much as if the hard lessons of prohibition are slowly being relearned.

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